Not enough space to social distance? Why cities should ban cars and make streets walk/bike only

Manchester, car-free. Image: Andrea Sandor.

I was over the moon when Boris Johnson laid out of the rules of lockdown. Without a balcony or garden, I expected to shrivel under an Italian, Spanish, or French-style lockdown-cum-prison-sentence. I rejoiced that the UK government understood how essential being outdoors is to physical and mental health. Now, however, households have received a letter from the PM warning that lockdown measures could be tightened if necessary.

While there’s no doubt some have flouted social distancing rules, my guess is the vast majority are doing their best to stay two metres apart when out and about. Those who live in crowded cities, however, don’t always have the luxury of space to do this.

Here in Manchester a friend of mine lives in Ancoats, the city’s fashionable new quarter with new apartment blocks but no public park. Unsurprisingly, residents have been taking their daily exercise at New Islington Marina, where it doesn’t take too many to overwhelm the area’s thin strip of nature. My friend’s toddler nearly toppled into the water after a close pass with a jogger attempting to maintain social distance from someone else.

It would be a mistake to tackle this issue by banning outdoor exercise, however. Research tells us what we all know intuitively: time spent outdoors boosts the immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves sleep and focus. It’s critical for getting the population through this crisis in reasonable shape. 

This is why cities around the world are closing roads to traffic so the public have more space to safely walk, run, and cycle. Last week, New York City closed four major roads precisely for the reason of “promoting social distancing and giving people more walking space”. Although the governor had called people failing to follow the social distancing guidelines “arrogant” and “self-destructive”, he recognised the answer wasn’t to clamp down further but to open up space to enable social distancing outdoors. Other American cities have quickly followed suit, with streets being closed to traffic across the country.

Cycling has also taken off under lockdown, with bike shops experiencing a boom in business. After witnessing a surge in cycling as commuters took to their bikes to avoid public transport due to Covid 19, NYC created new pop up bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Mexico City is considering similar measures, and Berlin has widened bike lanes. Bogota is leading the way with the 47 miles of additional cycle lanes they quickly built in response to the crisis. These cities have recognised the potential of the bicycle for commuting and exercise; with fewer cars on the road, expanding cycling capacity is a no brainer. Here in the UK, bike shops have made headlines for their free bike hire schemes to NHS staff.

No UK city, however, has yet taken the step of closing roads to cars, despite a nearly 75 per cent drop in car use since lockdown began. Cities in the US are also still resistant. In Massachusetts, Cambridge City Council delayed a vote on closing a parkway to cars after a minority of councillors objected. One councillor argued encouraging people onto the streets conflicts with orders to “shelter in place” (that is, American for ‘lockdown’), while another made the absurd argument that perspiring runners could endanger senior citizens they pass.

Apart from the obvious health benefits already mentioned, another important reason to close streets to vehicular traffic is to protect pedestrians and cyclists from speeding cars. Empty roads have led to an uptick in speeding that poses a far greater risk to public safety than sweaty joggers. Reckless driving also risks overstretching the NHS even further. This is also why many are arguing speed limits should be reduced.

In cities like NYC and Bogota, some suggest the closed streets and new cycle networks could become permanent after lockdown ends. The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world. This would help maintain improved air quality levels and move us away from a car-dependent and congestion-ridden society. 

In the immediate future, UK cities must give more streets over to people so city dwellers can weather this storm. Rather than bring in more restrictive lockdown measures and ban our exercise, the first move must be to free up more space for people to safely get outdoors and maintain social distance. Other cities around the world are doing it. When will the UK? 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.